On June 28, a gunman opened fire on the Capital Gazette newsroom in Annapolis, Maryland. He killed five people: Rob Hiaasen, an editor and columnist; Wendi Winters, a community correspondent; Gerald Fischman, the editorial page director; John McNamara, a sports writer; and Rebecca Smith, a sales assistant.
It’s reported that the suspect—who is now in custody and has been charged with five counts of first-degree murder—had a longstanding grudge against the Gazette after the paper covered charges brought against him in 2011 for harassing a woman. The alleged shooter lost multiple defamation lawsuits he brought against the paper and had previously been investigated for threatening Gazette journalists.
The targeted attack comes after years of the president of the United States verbally abusing the press, particularly at his campaign rallies, where “Rope, Tree, Journalist: Some Assembly Required” t-shirts were often sold. Journalist Katy Tur covered the Trump campaign for a year and a half, and was a the target of both the then-candidate’s tweets and countless death threats. She recounted a 2015 rally in Michigan where she felt most scared, where Trump remarked to a crowd, “They said, you know, [Russian President Vladimir Putin]’s killed reporters. I’d never kill them,” he said, smirking. “But I do hate them. Some of them are such lying, disgusting people.” Once elected, Trump has gone so far as to declare the press to be “the enemy of the American people.” The president also praised now-representative Greg Gianforte’s—who had body slammed Guardian reporter Ben Jacobs—special election victory as a “great win.”
Such statements from the person holding our nation’s highest office have likely only exacerbated anti-press sentiment among right-wing figures like Milo Yiannopoulos, who has “trolled” journalists with texts saying “I can’t wait for the vigilante squads to start gunning journalists down on sight.”
While there is no evidence that the rhetoric of Trump and the alt-right directly inspired the Gazette shooter, consider how this anti-press rhetoric could embolden someone already angry with a newspaper to act violently against its journalists.
The 154th mass shooting in the United States in 2018, Thursday’s massacre stands out in that this was an attack on the free press. It is not alarmist, but realistic, to declare this a warning sign not just of violence against journalists, but of imperiled American democracy.
Set against a backdrop of other warning signs—internment camps for children at the U.S. southern border, leaders evoking dangerously dehumanizing rhetoric to describe entire populations of people, an Islamophobic travel ban upheld by a justice holding a stolen seat on the Supreme Court, and the president’s threat to fire the independent prosecutor investigating his administration for conspiring with Russians to interfere in the last presidential election—the incessant war against the media almost runs the risk of normalization. But it is the free press that makes all of the above known to the public, so as to hold officials accountable—the very reason why demagogues attempting to overtake democracies around the world attack the institution.
The rise of the Third Reich in 1930s Germany and consequential collapse of democracy in that country is a chilling example of a dictator’s consolidation of power beginning with the targeting of the free press. Less than a year after winning their 1932 election, the Nazi Party imposed the Reichstag Fire Decree, restricting the freedom of the press and suspending many civil liberties. By the summer of 1933, all independent newspapers had been closed, political parties outlawed, and trade unions disbanded. Nazi officials took over all government positions, including those controlling the radio. Social scientist Maja Adena found in a study that the majority of new Nazi members thereafter were persuaded by anti-Semitic radio propaganda, leading her to conclude the integral nature of the free press for democracies: “Mass media can be both a safeguard against the fall of an unconsolidated democracy and a facilitating factor in its collapse depending on who exercises control over media content.”
Turkey provides a more contemporary example of a country that not long ago had been a serious contender for European Union membership. Since the 2016 failed military coup, President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has cracked down with force on the free press. At least 2,500 journalists have lost their jobs, 160 news outlets have been closed, and the country is now responsible for two-thirds of the world’s imprisoned journalists.
While the United States has certainly not reached the depths of either of these examples, there is considerable cause for alarm on the domestic front: Trump and his followers’ anti-press sentiments are not just lip service.
On January 20, 2017, at least two hundred people at an anti-fascist march protesting Trump’s inauguration were brusquely arrested and detained. Many of the J20 defendants, as they are known, are journalists. As my colleague Sam Adler-Bell has covered, the vast majority of those being charged have been acquitted, but over a year and a half after their arrest, dozens are still facing felony charges or waiting for jury decisions.
Trump also imposed a tariff on Canadian newsprint in early 2018 that has increased paper prices by as much as 30 percent. These hikes are hitting print newspapers, especially local newsrooms, hard; what has been called a “needless tax on journalism” only serves as a further attack on the free press.
The American public must be both alert to the violence incited against journalists and to Donald Trump’s continued disparagement of the press as an institution, as well as clear-eyed about preserving the freedom of the press as a critical pillar of democracy. Journalists recognize this importance. Even immediately following the targeted murder of five of their colleagues, with their newsroom still siphoned off as a crime scene, the Capital Gazette journalists defended their mission: they got to work from a parking garage across the street, and published their newspaper the next morning anyway.